Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Three key steps to developing meaningful volunteer roles

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.” Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and Rob Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

Developing roles for volunteers is one of the aspects of working with volunteers that those leading and managing them sometimes spend the least amount of time on. Despite the fact that we know we pay with volunteers with meaning, not money, many of us can skimp on the investment of time needed to craft really meaningful and motivating roles that will deliver a great volunteer experience. Instead, under pressure to get volunteers recruited and put to work, we develop roles geared around lists of uninspiring sounding tasks, often using a similar format to a paid role’s job description.

This is why the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd course on Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers continues to be popular. The course gives participants a chance to step back, explore volunteer role design afresh and actually work on creating a new role to help them in their work.

Here are three quick insights that might help you improve your volunteer roles.

  1. When talking to colleagues in order to identify new ways volunteers can help them in their work, do not ask, “What do you think volunteers can / could / should do to help?”. As soon as you ask this question people censor their responses based on their past experiences or prejudices about volunteers. So if your colleague thinks volunteers will be unreliable they will not suggest a role where reliability is important. Instead, work with colleagues to identify what their work actually involves, ideally in as much detail as possible. Then work with them to suggest ways volunteers could contribute their skills, talents and experience to get that work done.

  2. Games are fun activities people enjoy playing. People like spending time and effort playing and getting good at games. There are four elements present in all games that we should make sure are also present in our volunteer roles so that people will like spending their time and effort doing the volunteer work. First, ownership - does the volunteer feel they own their role and the work within it? Second, responsibility for results - is the volunteer held responsible for actually achieving something in the course of their volunteering (remember, people want to make a difference). Third, authority to think - is the volunteer controlled and micro-managed or are they actually allowed to use their own brains to figure out the best way to get the role done, perhaps bringing new ideas and insights to the work? Fourth, keeping score - does the volunteer know how they are doing and whether they are making progress towards that difference they (and you) want to make?

  3. Don’t use the typical task-oriented paid staff job description format for volunteer roles. Why? Here’s a quick question for you - when did you last pull out your job description, look at it and get really excited by what it contain, so much so that you can’t wait to get to work tomorrow? If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t looked at your job description since you were recruited or had your last annual appraisal. Why then do we think that format will inspire volunteers, people who we need to remain passionate about our work so we can re-recruit them everyday whilst meeting their motivational paycheque? Instead, think about constructing volunteer role descriptions around the results you want volunteers to achieve, giving space for people to develop their own ideas about how to do things rather than just doing a list of uninspiring tasks.

So, over to you. What are your top tips for developing meaningful volunteer roles? Please leave a comment below and share your insights with us and with your colleagues in the field.

If you’d like to know more about this topic and get further details on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd course on Developing Meaningful Roles for Volunteers please contact Rob direct by email or call +44 (0)7557 419 074.



    - The cooperation relationships will migrate from alliances traditionally philanthropic to strategic alliances.

    - In today’s interconnected world, third sector organizations will not prosper or survive if they do not find partners that can help them reach wider results to face the challenges ahead.


    - Macro level: Derive from the fast changes, structural and probably irreversible, that are being generated by powerful politics, economical, technological and social forces;

    - Politic force: The society cannot look anymore at the federal government as the main solver of problems;

    - Economic force: There are more and more nonprofit organizations looking for scarcer federal economical resources;

    - Technological force: The digital revolution is leading to the development of entirely new forms of social and economic interaction and new communities in a borderless cyberspace.

    - Social force: The magnitude and the complexity of our social and economic problems are growing fast.


    Alliances are vehicles for the accomplishment of each participants’ mission, so that the partnership becomes an integral part of any organization strategy;

    It is essential to find a connection among the cause that the third sector organization defends and the values that the volunteer would like to promote. The mutuality of interests is essential;

    The organization needs to think about the function and the value of the volunteers, if they fit in the general strategy and how their contribution helps to accomplish the Mission;

    Strategic alliances are multi faced relationships that change with time. In which aspects they change depends in great measure of the choices taken by each partner.

    Discover the right compatibility is a process that consumes time and disposition to dialogue. The questions below can be used to formulate a declaration of compatibility and to verify the consistency level:

     What are we trying to accomplish through the cooperation?

     In which point does our mission coincides with the volunteer one?

     Do we share the interest for the same group of people?

     Does the volunteer’s interests and abilities fulfill our necessities?

     Does the cooperation significantly contributes to our strategy as a whole?

     Are our values compatible?


    “Before asking something, you should know what you can do for the other part”

    All relationships involve an exchange of values between the parts. The following questions can be used to the define, create, balance and renewal the value of an alliance:

    What is the meaning of value for each partner?

    How does each partner create value to the other?

    How can the partners maintain a two-way balance in the exchange of values?

    What can be done to preserve and to enrich (strengthen ?) a two-way balance in the exchange of values?

    Analyze the strong and weak sides. Think how to maximize the strong ones and the partnership tends to work out. The viability of an alliance depends on its capacity to create and, to maintain value for both participants.

    I have other parts that I did not mention here. If you would like to receive the whole presentation that I did in December of 2003 in Geneva just send me an email
    Kind Regards

  2. This excellent article has relevance to the topic of developing volunteer roles - http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/23/cubs-exec-theo-epsteins-20-rule-for-getting-ahead-at-work.html